Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Desperate Search: The Rest of the Story

Part VII.
He slept with his fist pressed against his heart.
 Tetro, directed by Francis Ford Coppola

What is the worst?
Think hard. What is deeply your all-time, top prize, greatest fear?

Terry Gilliam tried to release his retro-futuristic satire on modern bureacracy, Brazil, in 1985.  The distributor of this particular picture, Universal, was displeased with Gilliam's product.  They saw an ending that was simply unacceptable.  It was too damn morbid.  What was the point of going through all that journey just for a loser of an ending?  What's the point in watching trapped prey unless it eventually escapes?  The studio saw this sad sack of a creation, and thought, 'We can rebuild it.  Stronger.  Faster.  Happier.'  And so they did.  What came of it was a version of the film that morphs what was supposed to be a dream sequence, into the final reality of our protagonist.  In that world, everyone we care about lives happily ad infinitum.

As is also the case with Blade Runner, we, the consumers, have been blessed to see Gilliam's dream realized in subsequent, non-studio inverventioned versions of the film.  The film can now be seen as it was intended to be seen (Extra credit: send me a write-up on the parallels between 'Director's Cuts' and the redemption of the true inner being of the sinner!).

From time to time, I take some flack for my tendency to embrace Debbie-downer films.  I think I am well versed to explain my reasoning for this, and I often give a more drawn-out version of this response:
                      Because we live in a world of sin, it is a far easier task for the auteur to create that which is a deeply affecting truth that finds its mold in the fabric of this broken world.  Happy endings are often corny because they somehow ring untrue to our lives.  They follow some sort of line of destiny that spews out these sometimes insolently simple creations that play a small note in an orchestra playing the notes of some other universe.  
                     To write a story of deep, resonant joy is the hardest task of any artist.  It is far safer to write a tragedy, and have it incidentally be a masterpiece, than it will ever be for a 'comedy' to fall within the confines of that category of art. 

I could pontificate further on this point, and could do so with near unending strength, but this is all an old hat concept.  Aaahh, I speak too quickly.  One more example for the traditional argument of Tragedy vs. Comedy:

Which of these myths is closer to our reality: Michael Myers or the Blue Fairy?

Perhaps you could say that Jesus is our Blue Fairy, but that's a stretch.  Jesus died to save us because he is awesome and we are not.  And he's chosen to save us from the repercussions of living in a world of Halloween.  Michael Myers is a pretty crushing reflection of the reality of death and sin.  It's coming.  It's unavoidable.  But the Blue Fairy is not coming, at least, you don't believe in her the way you know that death is imminent for both you and I.

Over a cup of 'kava s smetano' (coffee with cream), a friend asked me if I was afraid of death.  My answer; "No, I have no need to be."  Jesus has told us that we are granted eternal life to those of us who follow him.  In this way my fate is sealed; my endgame is written.  But this wasn't really the point my friend was trying to make.  After some back-and-forth, we arrived at our destination.  We were in complete agreement...

The worst of it all, the worst fear, the worst 'thing', the worst of the worst: it is nothingness.  Turn the radio to static.  Nothing.  What cruelty it holds.  What lack of compassion!  What obscene inarticulateness.

From "The Call of Cthulhu": The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

When H.P. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" captured our collective fears, what was it that was so abhorrent and terrifying?  It's not the evilness, per se.  It's the grandity of it.  Grandiosity.  When that insurmountable monster arises from the deep, that leviathan of leviathans, there is no retreat, there is no combat, there is no chance.  It is over.  It was over before it began.  This is the endgame.  The end moment.  The end.

I am afraid of nothingness because I love story so much.  All stories end, yes?  But do they really?  Last month in Switzerland we discussed how to have better, clearer conversations.  One of the topics broached was that of 'the conversation after the conversation'.  When we hang up that phone, yes, we've physically ended the relationship for that moment, but twenty minutes later your brain comes up with what would have been the perfect response.  The perfect comeback.  The perfect proof.  Even though the physical conversation has ended, it keeps going onward, pushing further in the reaches of our minds and imaginations.  So, though it's physicality has ended, the spirit of the conversation continues onward.  So it is with story.

This talk of great fears and nothingness does indeed come into play with stories of happiness.  It does.  Trust me.

Fall back for a moment to the doctrinal belief of existential nihilism.  It, as a theory, exerts that there is no absolute, internal meaning to life.  This philosophy is practically and ultimately unlivable.  All men seek meaning.  All men seek purpose.  And so the nihilist is forced, by the necessity of living, to abandon his bleak outlook for something that has the hope of meaning.  All sad tales have this aspect to them: they suppose movement.  They are not static.

Take Brazil.  Ending in catatonia, though the character may be enlisted into a realm of quiet nothingness, this is not the response that we, the viewer have.  We are brought to the point of dissection.  We are uneased by the state of which the film ended.  We want to rid ourselves of such a feeling.  So we do something about it.  We vent.  We quickly try to whitewash the feelings by giving ourselves happy stimuli.  Or we review the film to get a handle as to how we got to this disturbing junction.  Perhaps we will go back and revisit the film, only this time, our lens is skewed toward stitching together the seams of the wretched destiny our protagonist unknowingly barrels towards.

Take happy Universal edit of Brazil.  Ending in freedom, our minds drift away from all of it.  Our protagonist is happy.  We are happy.  Everything is fine.  And because everything is fine, there is no movement.  No movement = static.  And static, dear brothers and sisters, is a bedfellow with nothingness.

Joy and happiness are tremendously difficult themes to build in authenticity because they so easily fall victim to the great 'staticness' of this world.  And staticness is not storytelling.  It is the absence of story.

Some quick theological terms are of use here.  I believe we are living under the banner of an 'inaugurated kingdom of Jesus Christ'.  Christ has come to save us sinners.  His active work of paying for our sins is completed.  I have been made anew already.  I am saved from the destruction I deserve to bear.  Now, this is a whole truth, but still, the world is decomposing.  It is brimming with sin.  Everything is in the process of being renewed.  The consequence of that statement is that all things are not yet made new.  The redemption of all things has not yet come to pass.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those ... moments will be lost in time, like tears...in rain.
Time to die.
Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott

Joy and happiness have not been made complete.  We have not yet known the furthest extent of their reality.  We have not yet known completely redeemed joy, redeemed happiness.  We only yet know of its shadow.  And because of this, we struggle to see these subjects as moving, vibrant pulses.  They remain obscure, distant ideas.  They appear not to move.

Suffering and tribulation are our closest friends when it comes to story.  We know them.  We sit in a world soaked in them.  And so we observe how they breathe, how they move.  That is why they are so much easier to capture (with excellence) in story.

Let us now recollect St. Augustine's famous syllogism:

God created all things.
God did not create evil,
Therefore, evil is not a thing.

If evil isn't a thing, then it must be nothing.  Static.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In the Cage of Hosea

Pop Quiz: Is Andrew Niccol's "Lord of War", released in 2005, starring Nicolas Cage as the gun-runner Yuri Orlov...

a) A splendid character study of a lost soul, as well as an astute critique of modern government and the commercialization of warfare.
b) A repugnant, self-indulgent bit of tripe that exploits the antihero genre as a means to depict a series of increasingly vile scenes.
c) Don't ask, don't tell

They feed on the sin of My People
and direct their desire towards their iniquity.
Hosea 4:8

Yuri Orlov is Gomer.  He is a harlot of the people.  He has sold his soul for... well, I'm not sure the film ever answers that question.

The revolters have gone deep in depravity...
Their deeds will not allow them 
To return to their God. 
For a spirit of harlotry is within them
And they do not know the LORD.
Hosea 5:2,4

Our protagonist hides his wretchedness deep in the undergroundfor some time.  I think he hides it from himself as well.  He is perpetually self-deluded into thinking that his actions don't really carry any mortal consequences.  On account of the delusion, the ride he careens through is depicted as humorous and an all-around blast (the happy type).  Perhaps thankfully, the story does seemingly pivot eventually in tone and takes us away from the sheer lust of the game.

In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing...
Hosea 6:9

Yuri, aka Gomer, is given a scenario.  His arch-nemesis in gun sales, a character portrayed by the honorable Ian Holm, has been taken captive by Yuri's best customer.  This enemy planted a car bomb that murdered Yuri's uncle.  Yuri is given a powerful privilege.  He can choose to slay or spare this adversary.  Yuri has a rule about never using his own merchandise.  He never wanted to directly to cause a death by his own hands.  But he has a soul of ever diminishing volume.  He kills.

...The prophet is a fool,
The inspired man is demented,
Because of the grossness of your iniquity,
And because your hostility is so great.
Hosea 9:7

Yuri's boundaries were always imaginary.  Once upon a time he wore a tight mask that whispered in his ear that he was a man beyond morality.  Now, having caused death to emerge, his inner truth cannot hide.  At his core, Yuri never learned to care about anyone.  The aim of the bow only protects the archer.  The film's denouement, the implication of Yuri in his brother's death, shouldn't surprise any of us.  Yuri is evil.  He is the harlot.  He is Gomer.

...You have eaten the fruit of lies.
Because you have trusted in your way, 
in your numerous warriors.
Hosea 10:13

"Lord of War" is book-ended by a soliloquy by Yuri.  He tells us that there exist over 500 million guns.  That's one gun for every twelfth person. He tells us that his job is to figure out ways to arm the other eleven.  He makes no excuses for his profession.  There is no apology.  He does however, point us to America, and four other large nations that traffic exponentially more weapons than Yuri does.

The book of Hosea is book-ended as well.  It ends:

Whoever is wise, let him understand these things;
Whoever is discerning, let him know them.
For the ways of the LORD are right,
And the righteous will walk in them,
But transgressors will stumble in them.
Hosea 14:9

Monday, August 23, 2010

In Haste: Conversations with Other Women

This one is definitively one of those ones where I can't quite get past my moral compass.

"Conversations with Other Women" is about one relationship, over the course of, I don't know, maybe twelve hours.  The plot follows a man attempting to seduce the '7th bridesmaid' at his sister's wedding.  Through their banter we begin to understand that these particular people are not strangers at all.  They have a past.

This particular love story is particularly intriguing in a particular way by utilizing a particular device; in this particular case, that device is a continual split-screen.  The idea of a split-screen romance is dorky, but the implementation of the tactic by director Hans Canosa is well sculpted.  He uses the dual-panels to depict thoughts, flashbacks, and ethereal daydreams.

Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart are pros of the acting trade.  Due in large part to their independent acting abilities, their 90 minutes of banter never becomes dull.  Never.

But here's the thing: I'm forced to not root for them.  Through various revelations, we come to know that these two people were once married.  Now they are not.  He has a twenty-two year old girlfriend (twenty-three on August 12th!) that he is ever so eager to forget.  Worse still, she has a husband.  She is a mother.  These 'realities' are presented as roadblocks to our hopeless Romeo and Juliet. 

Where does that leave me?  You've left me in a room with two lovers who have no right to each other.  You call on me to watch them commit adultery.  Then, when all is ending, we watch them return to their previous lives.

Maybe if she was in an awful marriage... maybe if her husband beat her or cheated on her continually... maybe then I'd have pity for the plight of these two hopeless romantics.  This is not the case.  Her husband is a British cardiologist who sounds quite pleasant.  Sigh.

I say again, where does that leave me?  -- It leaves me in a taxi with two narcissists.  I'm selfish enough as it is, I don't have the energy to put up with two more.
Ananias and Saphira

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Holy Moment

Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in. 

It's a rare feeling, but when it comes, it paints the day.  Maybe the week.  Lord willing, my life.

Today, in Ljubljana, after lunch, it returned to me.  It's presence was fleeting, but I've become conditioned to sniff out its presence from afar.  

I was standing amidst a little street fair.  It was really nothing special.  There were a few stands, a cotton candy hub, and maybe seventy people strewn about.  There was a classical band full with baritones, clarinets, tubas and suspenders.  They were playing jolly Slovene anthems.  Every few songs an accordion player would join in.  

Everything was fun, like a small town 4th of July parade.  I was happy.  Then came the baton twirlers.

A dozen or so teenage baton twirlers pranced out with their batons and blue, somewhat traditional leotard outfits.  They were not very well coordinated.  A few of the girls had obvious embarrassment marked about their eyes.  They marched in place on the cobblestone to the beat of the tubas.

It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it.  For fifteen minutes.

There, in that place, it visited me -- that absolute feeling.
I will try to explain: everything I saw in that moment, everything I smelled and heard and sensed -- it was all so lovely.  I became, for just a fleeting moment, so enamored with my love for this life that I slid into it fully.  If I could stay in that moment, I think I would melt into the cobblestone.  I loved all the people that surrounded me, I loved the band, the littlest twirler that was consistently a beat and a half behind pace... I even loved the old dude that stood on the steps way behind the band that sported nothing but jean shorts, a necklace, and a off-beat clap.  I loved it all.  I felt so amazingly blessed just to be given this moment as a gift from the Lord -- I was beside myself.

Then I realized what I was feeling, and it was over.  

Perhaps I am the only one who is given such moments.  Whether you get them or not, I think it is what the new earth will be like.  All things will be filled to the brim with love.  And a love that big can't be contained. 
And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... and I need to remember..."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mindshot: Braveheart


On this occasion it is the sound, rather than the image we shall discuss.
Robert the Bruce is a bad man.  We see his actions.  He is bad.  He has betrayed our grand protagonist, William Wallace.  Amongst the circles of The Divine Comedy's Inferno, the Bruce would be thrown to the lowest pit, where he would join Judas Iscariot and the other betrayers.  They are devoured, chomped on, bit by bit, forever, by the Prince of the Air, Satan himself.  This should be the Bruce's fate.

Robert the Bruce is a bad man.  He is bad, but he has such aspirations of being good.  He has seen this "saint" bleed on the battlefield for something so grand.  He has heard the stories of how this man, Wallace, how he fought through a trap to get the body of his secret bride, and give her remains a proper burial.  He has heard the myths, that Wallace is a giant among men, that his sword draws from a power not seen since the staff of Moses.  He has heard all these things, and more.

Robert the Bruce is a bad man.  He betrayed William Wallace on the battlefield.  He saw his face, as the two came to realize what cowardice the Bruce acted on.  Robert saw with his eyes, and felt with his hands the innocent bodies of his rightful people, slain on the rigged field of war.  He sat on horsetop next to his bitter enemy.  He took to arms with that man which he loathed.  He saw the pain in his hero's eyes.  He has seen much.

Robert the Bruce is a bad man.  But for some reason, the great knight William Wallace saw something in the sinner Bruce.  He saw some resonance.  William encouraged him by showing the Bruce what abilities Robert has within himself.  Just before the betrayal, he even pleaded with him.  Who was Robert, for such a man to humble himself to him?  Why does this giant of faith consider him at all?

Robert the Bruce is a bad man, yet I love him so.  His great betrayal has freed him.  He has no longer any delusions of his self-worth.  He knows he is a bad man.  He has already committed the worst of crimes.  There is a mighty power in this self-knowledge.  Wallace, despite the Bruce's wretched behavior, has shown him mercy.  Grace even.  Wallace has allowed for a way for Robert to repent.  Robert can be redeemed.  Free at last.  Free at last.

Then things go wrong.  Robert himself is betrayed.

He cries gutturally.  Father.

Can you remember?

It is horrifically unfair to compare the Lord, our God to Robert the Bruce's earthly father, but I need to do so to try and capture the sentiment.  Bear with me.

But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together.  One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 
"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" 
           And He said to him, 
"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment.  The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets."*

Jesus has told us what to do to live like him.  But then there's the how.  'How do I love?'  And, 'what is the loving thing to do in every situation?'  Then comes perhaps the more potent, selfish question, 'how am I to be loved in return?'

These exasperations are in the Bruce's voice.  His Father has also become his Judge.  Granted, in his case, his father is both a flawed father and an unjust judge, but still, the voice of the Bruce could be the voice of Job.

God has promised us an eternal dwelling with Him.  He has given us grace.  He has shown His mercy.  Despite these truths, events occur.  These events lay us siege to great doubts.  Then we shout.  We scream at our Father.

Because God will be silent in our lives, we grow impatient.  We devise these ideas that He must be unjust; He must be against us; His grace is not sufficient.  And so we shout.  Father.

I cry out to You for help, but You do not answer me;
I stand up, and You turn Your attention against me.
You have become cruel to me;
With the might of Your hand You persecute me...
I am seething within and cannot relaz;
Days of affliction confront me.
I go about mourning without comfort;
I stand up in the assembly and cry out for help.
I have become a brother to jackals
And a companion of ostriches.
My skin turns black on me,
And my bones burn with fever.
Therefore my harp is turned to mourning,
And my flute to the sound of those who weep."**

The issue for Job and Robert is, I think, love moreso than justice.  For Job, if God is loving, why does he allow his righteous one to suffer such devastation.  For Robert, if his father loves him, why does he deny him the ability to be found forgiven?

God loves us.  This I know.  This is true.  Nevertheless, we are brought to places where we cannot comprehend how the loving Savior of our Souls allows for such pain.

Father. Robert's arc ends when he is reminded that his sanctity, his forgiveness, is not something that his earthly father can hold hostage.  Job's arc ends with God showing him the leviathan, to remind Job that He is in control, and that which God has promised, God will fulfill.  Let us sing with shouts to God our struggles with great vexation, so that we too may be reminded of what is right and true.

*Matthew 22:34-40 NASB
**Job 30:20-22, 27-31 NASB

Monday, August 16, 2010


As a ring of gold in a swine's snout
So is a beautiful woman
who lacks discretion.
Proverbs 11:22*

Once upon a time there was a girl named Poppy in a movie called "Happy-Go-Lucky".  She is the girl.  She's the prototype of eccentricity bottled in the body of an extroverted, skinny Brit, school teacher.  She is Poppy, and she'll be smiling at you all day.

  The question is: do you smile back?

Mike Leigh created Poppy as the centerpiece to a film who's theme appears to be in the title.  The film never tries to be anything more than a case study of a woman who walks around laughing at the silliness of the world and all the characters in it.  The most climactic scenes of the film are birthed out of characters interacting with Poppy who are not Happy-Go-Lucky.  This is the inquiry the film delves into -- does the sourness of the world crush blithe spirits like Poppy?

The first lines of the film are spoken by Poppy after she gets out of her cutsy bicycle to rummage through a used book store.  She flutters about through the store, and comments on a book she's just pulled from the shelf; "The Road to Reality... don't wanna be going there!"  We're being told that we're entering her world, not our own.  And yet, despite the spoken word, a moment later Poppy ventures back into the outside world only to discover that her cutsy-potootsie bike has been hijacked (think "The Bicycle Thieves").  Poppy shrugs it off.

That intro scene is really all we need to know about the movie.  We have a character who is happy.  She will continue to be confronted with harsh and potentially debilitating realities of the world.  But she will overcome all these things by shrugging them off.

What is deeply fascinating here is not the film itself per se, but rather, what the film intuitively causes us to do.  (Note: Today I'm assuming that the common public thinks the way I do --- I know, it's a stretch, but a man has to live!)  Because Poppy is our main character; because she is so happy, and because everyone who isn't happy with Poppy just isn't happy, we are naturally bent to form a dichotomy.

Are you like her, or are you not?  

Throughout the film I found myself weighing the evidence.  The film gently forces your hand to try to converge your self-image to that of Poppy or Anti-Poppy.  Leaving the experience, if you find yourself in the Anti-Poppy self-image allotment crowd, you are likely not-so inspired.  Or maybe it sends you in the direction of change.  I guess that would be good.  But...

I've been at a conference in Switzerland all this week, and in the morning sessions our group has been working through the first three chapters of the book of Ephesians in the New Testament.  Unsurprisingly (but by no means remorsefully), the general theme of the discussions has been on grace.  Scandalous grace.  Now, grace is an easy concept to say (what with it being only one syllable and all), but an intricate beast to really grasp.  Stay with me.  This applies to the movie.  Just you hold your horses.

The following is my translation of the teaching I've engorged myself on this week:
Christianity, at least, the faith in the work of Jesus of Nazareth, is an utterly unique tradition.  It is, at its very core, absolutely unique from the religions of the world.  All other religions (as far as I know -- feel free to show me my error if you are in the know) run on a certain operating system.  It's the same operating system that movies run on, and it's a very natural thing.  The world operates on a Performance Based Value System.  If you'd prefer, you can substitute the word Merit in for Performance.  This PBVSystem is quite simple; you get what you deserve.  If you're a good citizen of the world, you reap good rewards.  If you are bad, your endgame is badness.  That all sounds fine and dandy.  It sounds justicefull.  But there's a problem: there are so many glaring exceptions to the rule.  Evil often excels at life.  Bad people get to be movie stars and presidents and generals.  And when those bad people get into power, the good people receive the outpouring of those in power.  Sigh.  Perhaps because of this internal draw towards justice, or because of the amount of exceptions that the world burdens us with, we tend to seek happiness and fulfillment through comparison.  And so I base my contentedness on how I stack up to other people.  Furthermore, in a film like "Happy-Go-Lucky", I'm bound to lose because Poppy comes out of it all so blissfully perfect.

If, and let us stress that if, we choose to run our lives on a PBVSystem, then we will compare ourselves, because we are constantly seeking for a standard by which to compare ourselves to.  We need to know if we come out of it all better than par.

If, on the other hand, we embrace the words of Jesus and the Bible, then we are to operate our lives on a Grace Based System, which will never be based on comparison.  Living by grace is living with the knowledge that I failed.  I sucked at life.  I have done bad things.  All it ever took was one bad thing to fail --- and I've stumbled over myself so many times I can't count it all.  You have too.  Everyone has.  But, do to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has removed all my demerits.  So, the therefore that comes out of that, is that my operating system is not based on my accomplishments.  No, it's based on the gratitude I have for God because he saved me from my own failure.

Poppy, as happy as she is, is a trap.  I am happy and made right not by acting like her, or trying to adopt her lifestyle.  Some of us can never be extroverted the way she is.  We just are not all wired that way.  Be who you are, because God has extended a new operating system out to you (the Liger?).

Boy, this entry was especially Gospely.  I guess this is my natural reaction to the Swiss Alps.                                Excellent.

"But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ, for He Himself is our peace... by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances..." Ephesians 2:13-15

*All Bible quotes are taken from the New American Standard Bible translation

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The 4 Rules and a Brief Talk about Space

 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, 
and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
Matthew 5:43-44 King James Version

Perhaps it is unfair of me to use Akira Kurosawa's exquisite High and Low (alternate title: Heaven and Hell) as my paragon for the Absolute Rules of Movie Affections.  On its own accord, High and Low is a dynamo of a film, and well deserving of its own day in the reviewing son, but alas, these things are subject (victim?) to my personal whims.  And my whim says it's time to discuss the Rules.  Understood?

If there is time, for love's sake, we'll discuss the madness of depth as Kurosawa saw fit to exploit the world of dimensionality to contemplate moral and social convictions.  But to the Rules:

Jesus called men, during his famous Sermon on the Mount, to do what is against human nature; to love thy enemy.  And so this a great striving of the Christian life.  But, Christ did not tell me that I must love those films that are wretched.  There is no command to 'Love thy movies as thyself'.  And so, many films I dislike with great gusto.  NEVERTHELESS, there are Rules.  Golden ones.  Ones that cannot be broken.

These Rules are simply.  If they occur in a film, despite whatever leanings I may have toward the material, I must walk away with affection and admiration for the film.  I may not talk poorly of its character or moral (in)eptitude.  It's quite clear, really.  If these Rules/Instances occur, I am obliged to hold kindness and mercy alone towards the material.  I'll list the 4 Rules, and then paddle back to illustrate each one.  

1) All the characters die. Every single one.
2) Freeze Frame Ending
3) An animal of certain innate traits is shown on camera.  
4) The film ends on screaming (only applies if the film is not a horror film by genre).
1. If a film is ever so bold as to obliterate its creation, entirely, absolutely, well then, the way I see it, it's pretty much a no-harm, no-foul type of situation.  What was created by the filmmaker is now no more, so there's no need to carry anything with me.  What's done is done.  Plus, to end everything; that's a heckava ballsy way to deal with things.  Thus the film gets points for gutsiness.  And since these points are added to a clean slate, the film must, be necessity and logic, be put in the positive category.*

    *Note: I've never seen any film (as far as I can recall) that goes all the way, but several films come close, or hint at complete annihilation -- for example: Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project, The Mist.  These 'close calls' I usually give credit too.

2. I think it was in C.S. Lewis' "A Grief Observed", that the stupendous author tries to reflect on the image of his perished wife.  He describes how difficult it is to visualize her face.  He's seen that face from every angle, under hundreds of conditions, temperaments, and climates.  All that input is too much.  It causes him to see only a foggy semblance of a face.  On the other hand, Lewis had no problem remembering the faces of mere acquaintances, for he only had one memory to pull from.  He remembered those people as he met them in that one moment, and so there faces remained clear.  When you think of any specific film, what do you visualize?  If it's a great film, you likely think of your favorite scene.  If it's a so-so film, you might get that fuzzy feeling, as you can't quite remember any one moment well enough to store in the memory banks (don't get me wrong here, I'm not meaning to compare so-so films to Joy Gresham/Lewis -- by no means!).  How fortunate then when films grant us with a final picture to emblazon on our memory banks.

The greatest example of the final freeze frame just may have been bestowed unto us in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  The picture we are granted gives us a subtle context to the whole experience, and actually re-sods the whole film with a new level of morose sentimentality.  It's unspeakably exquisite.  Absolutely, that moments elevates an otherwise funny film to epic greatness status.  Truly, truly, I say to you, the limit of the power of the ending freeze frame is unknowable.*

                *Note: This Rule often gets me in the most trouble, as many otherwise _______ films like to sweeten their deal by tacking on a freeze frame.  You'll notice, however, that in every such case the film ends up being one of those, 'so bad, it's good' situations.  To use as example, see Troll 2, The Santa Clause 3

3.  Originally, this category was limited to camels.  Just look at a camel on camera.  Not only is such an experience innately hysterical, but eyeing the jowls of camel munching on whatever it is camels enjoy is hypnotizing.  After you've locked eyes with that dystopian oddity, no matter what direction the film takes, you can rest in the comfort of reflecting back on that obscene creation of God.  A poor example of this is, obviously Lawrence of Arabia, but that film is awesome regardless of camels, so let's brush that one aside.  But take a look at The Nativity Story.  Queue it up now, or find it online.  Now.  Try to watch those camels without smirking!  If you can, then realize that the pain of the world has hardened your heart and you should repent for the amazing grace of Jesus Christ to shine down on you, because fella, you need to help.  'Dem camels are hilarious.  Look at them go!  Marvelous!

Furthermore, this category has been subjectively opened up to other animals as well.  Any animal that looks like it's showing an emotion automatically doesn't count.  Horses have a tendency to look melancholy so they're out.  Others like elephants and dolphins always look happy, so they're exempt.  Oh, and anything ordinary, house pets, for instance, don't add anything.  I'm talking about creatures that just have no business being alive, let alone in front of a camera.  Anteaters, manatee, sloths, and those monkeys that have those eyes that look like they're about to pop out; these are the specimens that should cause the viewer to reflect on the odd personality of God.*

*Note: animated animals (including CGI) don't count, as they are a reflection of their animator, and not the creator of the universe.  This is a life saver, because otherwise I'd be forced to approve G.I. Joe

4. This is the only Rule with an exception.  Horror films, due to their nature, often like to add one last thrill to their pie, so they'll splash on a scream at the very end for kicks.  No, no, that's not what Rule 4 is all about.  Rule 4 is for the drama or comedy that decides to tell the audience that the world is hopelessly bleak.  This is a good thing.  Let me explain: when High and Low ends the way it does, the viewer is forced to make a snap judgment.  The question instantly arises: 'Is this true?'  Just as quickly comes the instinctual answer.  The scream sets up a litmus test of worldviews.  Is the world bad or good?  You'll respond instantly to the film with a sigh of resignation, or you'll smack your lips together in prim disgust, as if you're ready to spew out the garbage the film feeds you.  Either way, you have to give it up for anything that forces you to reveal your hand.*

*Note: Despite what may seem unnatural, it really is a classy move to end on a scream.  Honest.
Brief Talk about Space: look at those reflections, so ethereal!

Oh shucks, look at the time.  I guess we don't have time allotted to enjoy the dialogue of Kurosawa's genius of spatial planesany further.  Darn.

To suffice, let's exit with the last bit of dialogue from High and Low (translated of course):

I'm not afraid of death,
I don't care if I go to hell.
My life has been hell
since the day I was born.
But if I had to go to heaven
then I'd really start to tremble.

In Haste: Valhalla Rising

One of the worst feelings in the world: that sinking lump descending your stomach as you begin to lose faith that the story you're committed to isn't leading anywhere.  This pit of despair, this slough of despond, struck me somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes into the new film by 'hot' director Nicolas Winding Refn.

You'd think a super-violent film about Vikings meeting Christians and the afterlife would be a slam dunk.  What could go wrong?  Apparently, a lot.

What did the film lack?  Content.  It had atmosphere belching out every orifice, which is great, but I need substance.  Anything.  I just need stuff to happen, man.  To a far degree, as long as stuff happens my mind will carry us along.  But no, you just give me a horrendous bludgeoning every twenty minutes.  That's it.  Oh, and also cool chapter headings that cause me to hope that the coming scenes will hold the key to the riddle.  But ultimately, there is no riddle.  There's... well, it's all for naught.  Hrmm... that causes me think of the book of Hebrews:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.  For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.  Hebrews 5:12-14 New American Standard Bible

I'm not entirely sure how that passage connects to this discussion, but darn it, it just feels right.  Coming out of this film, that lump in my stomach turned to rage.  I felt like I was fed sugar-water.  I wanted a meal, dammit!  Feed me! 

Saturday, August 7, 2010

'The' vs. 'A'

My parents, though both roughly born in the baby-boomer era (though my father doesn't quite qualify, having been born in '43), managed to steer clear of the free-love, hippy movement that so many of their generation cleaved to.  Father spent four years (three?) in the air force, became an industrial engineer, while Mother was a schoolteacher turned full-time Mom.  Our family chemistry reflected something closer to a "Leave it to Beaver" era than a "Nixon is the Foghorn of the Great Evil Corporate America" sentiment.  Because of this, it still surprises me when I reflect on their fondness for singer/poet/songwriter Rod McKuen.

McKuen reached a fair degree of celebrity with his hits, "Jean" and "Seasons in the Sun", but he never denied his activist, bay-area liberal mentality.  To make my point; McKuen has a song dedicated to denigrating the intelligence (or, according to Rod, lack thereof) of Vice President Spiro Agnew.  Despite this, my parents have consistently adored his ability to tell stories, and impart his soul articulately through his prose and poetry.

I'm proud to be able to share a love for ol' Rod's work with them.  I'm pleased that my loving parents opened that world up to me.  My favorite of McKuen's poem's is entitled "The Single Man"The short poem collectivizes the experience of loneliness.  It is refreshing in it's inclusivity.  Though it of course is a sad voyage, it brings us through the experience together.  Hence the, "The".  "The Single Man" represents our collective loneliness.  I find a world of lonely people sharing their loneliness together as somehow inspiring, refreshing. 

Last year, director Tom Ford made a film about a gay English professor in 1962 LA whose young lover has died.  We follow the professor through one day of mournful suffering, reminiscing.  The film is laboriously slow.  This is not the type of slow that accompanies a Kubrick flick, no.  No, when I say slow, I mean boring.  A Single Man is often a boring film to endure.  I write this as not a critique or insult.  Mr. Ford did not make The Single Man.  He is not outlining the simple thread of experience that all the heartbroken know.  Upon viewing, you'll find that that is precisely not what the film is going about doing.

What is displayed is not the collective experience of pain, but instead, the horrifyingly particularness of loss.  If we mourn together, than the sensation is dumbed and dulled.  To be alone is to be alone; there can be no empathizing of the protagonist's plight.  We are kept at arm's length -- and boredom is the most effective tool to keep us from moving in.

Now, why make a film like this, if we can't identify ourselves in it?

Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream does a swell job at taking the viewer down the rabbit hole of addiction.  This is undeniable.  What that film is not about, is the pain of recovery.  We are left with all the characters regressing back into the infantesque fetal position -- moments before they die or live to face the horror of withdrawals.

To survive withdrawals, one must recognize that any individual moment is endurable, and then build a wall after every second.  I endured a second.  Good.  Build a wall.  Never look back.  Endure another second.  Breathe.  This is how it goes (so I understand).  What is so fascinating about that process is the sense of loss that accompanies it.  Not only does the body writhe in convulsions and need, but a sense of lost purpose swells within an addict's mind.  A recovering addict must identify and deal with a new reality; their whole world, at it's pinnacle, revolved around the substance they worshiped.

This is what A Single Man is, a lesson in addiction recovery.  People are themselves the very substances that we become addicted to.  And there's hell to pay for it.

Friday, August 6, 2010

My Momentarily Definitive Coen List: #1

Welcome Little Boy

Today is the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.  It is not a particularly pleasant thought to dwell on such a matter, as 'the big one' is such a stupifyingly oxymoronic event on the face of human history.  Perhaps it explains us better than any other marvel.  If you have the will power, look up some of the photos of the burn victims, realize that the far majority of the 70,000 instant fatalities were civilians, and then look at all the happy photos of our troops coming home.  V-Day in the Pacific came because of this awful thing of power (and his li'l brother, Fat Man, unleashed upon Nagasaki three days later).

America showed no mercy
on August 6th.
And again on August 9th.  That was the cost of peace; the release of a monster the likes of which our imaginations have replaced with the likes of Godzilla.  It's the stuff of Lovecraft.  By bringing this to light, I don't intend to cast a shadow on America's actions during the Second Great War.  I only mention it to bring to light the sheer immensity of such an act.

This world can never be defined sufficiently.  Many works of art, rhetoric, or mathematics would have us believe that this world is known, that we can grasp the very essence of what it is we are a part of.  I am of the party that says we cannot do this.

Take God, for example.  He is all-loving, all-righteous, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and also the very end of righteous wrath and anger.  Psalm 78 consists of a retelling of the history of God and Israel, and notes when God was forsaken by His people,

  58For they (Israel) provoked Him with their high places
  And aroused His jealousy with their graven images.
  59When God heard, He was filled with wrath
  And greatly abhorred Israel;

Yet John, the one whom Jesus loved, centuries later, tells us, 

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; 
   and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 
1 John 4:7-8

Our God cannot be contained by our words or definitions.  Likewise it would follow that that which this immeasurable God created would follow suit.  And because of this, there will always be more to discover.  More on this later.

The Man Who Wasn't There won't be most folks' favorite Coen flick.  I get that.  It doesn't have the most zany of characters, nor the most preposterous of plots, nor the most suspenseful moments.

Go watch it.  Have you?  Now summarize.  I summary written on imdb.com states it as, "...a tale of suspected adultery, blackmail, foul play, death, Sacramento city slickers, racial slurs, invented war heroics, shaved legs, a gamine piano player, aliens, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle."  That about covers it.  Hell, I don't even know what 'gamine' means.

The fourth book of the Bible, the Book of Numbers, has a tendency, like a fair portion of the Torah, to be a bit of a boring read.  But somewhere in the middle of its cycle, in chapters 22-24, we get a glimpse of the character Balaam.  Why is he important?  For one, he talks to the Lord.  And he's not an Israelite.  That's a rare commodity in the days before Jesus of Nazareth.  We learn that Balaam is a soothsayer prophet.  He has been asked to curse the Israelites.  He responds to the Moabite King by saying he can only do what the Lord tells him to do.  Three times he asks, and three times God says no.  He comes out of the story as a pretty stand-up Gentile.  Oh yeah, and there's a talking ass.  After the non-cursing incident, Balaam just walks out of the story, Numbers 24:25,

Then Balaam arose and departed and returned to his place...

Six chapters later we get our postscript on Balaam's life.  He is listed amongst the names of the slain among the Midianites that Israel had just wiped out by God's blessing.  

Balaam is one of the select few Old Testament characters who is verified to exist by extra-biblical documents.  He was an important dude.  And he talked to God.  

This passage holds so much intrigue for me because it's a small window into the workings of God outside of the Biblical narrative.  Balaam clearly had a relationship with God, but mostly, that story is excluded.  All that is kept is Balaam's interactions with the (pre)nation of Israel.  This makes sense in that that is what the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is concerned with; the plight of the Israelites.  There are immeasurable stories of God that we simply are not informed of.  Surely there are.  There is so much.  This, I do believe, is part one of Ed Crane's two-part journey.

 At some point, The Man Who Wasn't There was known simply as The Barber.  Either title works.  Ed Crane, the barber, is caught in a cyclical trap.  Everything is remaining the same while growing more and more distant.  He sees this primarily through his wife's ever blooming relationship with Big Dave, aka Tony Soprano circa 1949.  Mercifully, dry-cleaning comes walloping into Ed Crane's life... that is, dry-cleaning, some abstract thoughts, and Birdy, the pre-Lost in Translation, piano playing, Scarlett Johannson.  All these facets lead Ed towards this truth; the world is convulsing with ideas, and ideas are what pre-empt change.  The hope of change spurs Ed on.  If there can be change, then maybe Ed can get what he really wants. 

From my perspective, the film wears it colors on its sleeve when we get a look into Ed's mind.  As he passes out amidst a car crash, he remembers.  He remembers his wife, and through memory, we are given a slice of her character that draws him to her.  She is wholly other.  This is the hope, that he can again marry his form to hers.  That he can love this different thing, and that she'll love him in return.

Ed's journey is one of revelation followed by resolution.  The revelation is that the world is vast and unknowable in its immensity.  The resolution is that because of the openness of existence, he may yet find a way to articulate his love for his wife.  

When we face the vastness of all creation, let us smile and seek a way to articulate our love for that which we are privileged to play a part in.  Let's sign our names to this place.  Nuclear bombs and all.

Ed Crane: It’s like pulling away from the maze, while you’re in the maze you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, banging into the dead ends, one thing after another, but you get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns, why, they’re the shape of your life, it’s hard to explain, but seeing it whole gives you some peace.